A few weeks before my latest left brain takeover, Jon Katz wrote again about a topic I find interesting — people who think of pets as their children. Those folks, he says, must not have children like his. It’s hard to disagree. I find the two relationships undeniably and absolutely different. But other people don’t.
It’s easy to see how the protective feelings that pets arouse are similar to the feelings parents have for their children. But for me, there is none of the terrifying emotional vulnerability that parenting entails, none of the wrenching tension of spending years preparing a child to do what will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with joy — which is to say, leave you behind to create their own selves and lives. As I wrote before on this topic, “I don’t have to worry whether my dogs are going to grow into empathetic, decent folks. I don’t worry about whether they are going to inherit my neuroses, or whether they will still call and visit in twenty years.” I don’t have to. My dog is fairly predictable. Other than flirting with the idea of abandoning me as his primary human in favor of my partner, Thomas is reliably pro-Jen, in every situation. (That’s really nice, because he’s about the only one.)
I think a little precision gets to the heart of the issue. People aren’t saying they feel like they are their pets’ parents. They are saying they think of their pets as their children — but those two things are not equivalent. The latter reflects only part of the parent-child equation. So I wonder whether this conception of animals as children represents what some small part of us cries out for in parenting — a nurturing relationship unburdened by fears of failure or self-doubt, and more like the relationship we have with our children when they are infants. We know on some level that the effects of our own pain inevitably seep into the lives of our children, but all that is much fuzzier and farther away when they are babies. With my sleeping baby on my chest, I felt the pure echoes of my own infant need for limitless bonding with my mother. But there’s something unseemly about getting your emotional needs met at the expense of your children, and you don’t have to worry about that with pets. They are ciphers. They’re not going to tell you they think you’re a crazy asshole. Your kids can, and will. In other words, pets don’t differentiate. Human children do, much to the annoyance and discomfort of everyone involved. As I’ve written before, nature doesn’t talk back. Neither do pets. I think that must be one of the benefits of having a non-human child.
What clarified this for me was the one exception I can think of to this. A few years ago, in Brazil’s Pantanal region, a veterinarian named Carolina Vargas effectively became a giant otter parent. (Her relationship with the juvenile otter she named Sancho is profiled in the Wild Kingdom episode “Raising Sancho”, and you should watch it.) Carolina had been working for a couple of years as a giant otter researcher in the Pantanal when a local fisherman brought her an infant giant otter he’d found, alone and apparently separated from his parents. Carolina estimates that Sancho was about twenty days old when he came into her care. His eyes were still closed and he required bottle-feeding every two or so hours. Carolina was abruptly thrust into a role every bit as demanding — and arguably more — as parenting a human infant. The easy thing to do would’ve been to attempt to place him in a zoo or similar setting, but she didn’t make this less risky choice. Instead, Carolina, one of the most conscientious people I’ve ever met, spent nine months of her life attempting something for which there was little precedent — rehabilitating an infant giant otter with the intent of successfully returning him to the wild. Wild animal rehabilitation is a tall order under the best of circumstances, but Carolina’s work with Sancho was almost completely novel, and therefore much more difficult. Trial and error and risk were part of each day with him.
The aspects of parenting that distinguish it from my relationships with pets were very much present in Carolina and Sancho’s relationship. For one thing, Sancho was a child, an infant, and one who required intensive maternal care. Carolina, who spent many days as a surrogate otter mother waking every two hours to give a bottle of milk to the infant Sancho, naturally bonded strongly with him. And yet she moved insistently forward, contrary to her emotional self-interest, to give him the tools to leave her and create his own life in the wild. In so doing she subjected herself to the painful uncertainty of whether she was doing right by Sancho, from teaching him how to fish to helping him overcome his fear of free swimming after a cayman attack.
In the end (as you know if you’ve watched the documentary), Sancho may well have differentiated as a human child would, and Carolina was denied knowing the outcome of her “parenting”, or even the knowledge of when or how it would end. Perhaps because Sancho was a wild animal and not a pet, the idea of a parent-child relationship between him and Carolina illustrates a truthfulness to their relationship that simply isn’t there in the case of pet-as-child. Her parenting honored Sancho’s essential nature as an otter, while pet children are being asked to masquerade as human beings. That is not to diminish the bond between humans and their animals in any way. Pets and their humans can be true and deep-hearted companions indeed; this can be a relationship of almost mystical force. But even in the case of kittens or puppies, you are not raising a child, you are raising a cat or dog. You are not entering the cat or dog world in order to create the conditions for that animal to create its own life and self. Rather, you’ve created a lovely, mutual, symbiotic and continuing relationship across species that occurs mostly in the human realm. That is the truth of the pet-human relationship.
Carolina, on the other hand, entered the otter world as an honorary otter mother from the moment Sancho came into her care. She swam the rivers of the Pantanal that are Sancho’s natural habitat in order to teach him how to live there, using a snorkel to adapt herself to the environment. She studied the habits of giant otter families, and they served as her parenting mentors. She accepted the risks of an otter mother, and felt the consequences of having a truly wild child. Wild parenting demands a relinquishing of control that pet parenting doesn’t require.
This isn’t a perfect comparison, of course. A human can never truly parent an animal, because there are divides that can never be fully crossed. It’s in this way that the truth of the parenting resides mostly on Sancho’s side — Carolina was his mother, and he recognized her as such. This relationship remains one of the most truthful animal-human relationships I know — deeply honorable, and respectful of the true natures of both the human and the otter.